We entered the Swappie factory where iPhones come in used and come out (almost) new

At the base of the circular economy there is a circular route: used goods enter and used ones leave. In the Swappie factory, hundreds of square meters in the center of Helsinki, Finland, the reception that welcomes smartphones is a huge room where dozens and dozens of boxes full of phones enter every day. Swappie withdraws all types of smartphones, Android and iPhones, but if the former are then sent to other partners who take care of the reconditioning operations, all the work on the iPhones is done in-house.

Where did they come from? They can come from companies that have switched employee models to supply a newer phone, or from people who have wisely chosen to resell an old iPhone to Swappie rather than trade it in to Apple itself. Swappie, in the evaluation of older phones, is willing to pay something more than the parent company because every phone is precious, even if only for donating its “vital organs”. Swappie withdraws every phone that turns on and works: to facilitate the process of entering the countries of northern Europe, it is also experimenting with a series of automatic machines, produced by the Israeli Cellomat, which are real smartphone ATMs. You can make a deposit, the smartphone is evaluated on the spot, a withdrawal, you can buy a refurbished model or an exchange: inside the old and outside the new. The withdrawal, in Italy, takes place through direct sales on the site.

Every phone that arrives in Helsinki can have damaged parts but it must turn on, and the first thing that is done is a 100% battery recharge: bundles of 40 Lighting cables power entire phone batteries, bringing the charge to 100%.

Hundreds of phones arrive every day and begin their refurbishment process
Each phone is charged to 100% to prevent the battery from draining in the process

A fundamental operation, because in the whole process that takes from 10 minutes to several hours depending on the intervention, the battery cannot run out. At this stage the smartphones, which have been deleted by the owner before shipping them, at least hopefully, are activated and a diagnostic software is installed. They are ready now for their short journey to a new life.

There are obviously a series of intermediate steps where it is verified that the IMEI does not belong to a list of stolen iPhones, or that there are no personal data that are deleted. Furthermore, if Find My iPhone is active, the phone is returned to the sender because it cannot be disconnected by a third party.

A brief history of a refurbished phone – video

Up to 60 tests for each single model, a check done largely by hand

During the process of reconditioning a smartphone, there are essentially two delicate phases: that of evaluating the problems and that of evaluating the final grade, that level that then determines the final price of the device. By relying on a customized software suite, Swappie performs up to 60 different tests for each phone to understand if there are damaged elements that are not visible to the naked eye.

The phones during the initial testing phase to see if there are any problems

These tests include a series of automatic tests such as the residual battery capacity as indicated by the Apple bees or the operation of the microphones and speakers or a series of manual tests, such as the photo to a blank sheet to see if there are any spots on the sensors or the pressure of every single point of the touch to see if all the zones are reactive.

With a magnifying glass you can check any burnt pixels on the screen, the status of the sensor that detects any immersion in water and any other small detail that can escape a superficial analysis, and you decide the fate of each individual phone.

Send to Easy Repair, i.e. a light repair is needed

If an iPhone is in perfect condition it is only prepared for sale, polished and boxed. If the aesthetic conditions are perfect but the battery needs to be replaced, it is replaced, while if there are problems, a real repair is carried out. That can be simple, or it can be a real surgery.

First rule: nothing is thrown away from a smartphone

Battery, screen, and charging connector are the three most common repairs on smartphones to be refurbished. Swappie has no agreements of any kind with Apple and has chosen to do not enter the Authorized Repair Services systemtherefore it has no access to original spare parts.

There are two solutions chosen: the first involves the purchase of spare parts from companies that supply non-original but still quality spare parts, spare parts that are first tested and certified on a small sample of telephones, the second involves the recovery of parts from those iPhones that do not turn on or that are not repairable in any way.

The smartphone is a bit like the pig, nothing is thrown away: every phone is cannibalized and every good part, from the cameras to the internal flats, is appropriately organized in what is in effect a bank of the original spare part, used but however original.

New parts from certified suppliers
Previously used parts, recovered from other phones

The repairs to the battery and screens are not very sophisticated, and neither are the expensive machines that Apple now rents to those in the States who want to try a DIY repair on the phone to re-seal the phone after opening it, thus restoring the seals. which guarantee water tightness. Simple snap closure.

Phones that are sold by Swappie they are not necessarily waterproof, and in any case it is not possible to know if they are: surely the phones to which the battery has been changed have been opened and every opened phone is no longer guaranteed on the resistance to immersion. Swappie offers a 12 month warranty, but be aware that if a phone slips into water it could get in.

An Eprom programmer used to make some “non-Apple” spare parts compatible with Apple systems that otherwise would not work, such as displays with TrueTone

On the tables of the technicians we have seen several JCED devices, that is those small devices that allow you to repair even those parts that, without a non-original spare part, would not work well, for example the True Tone on the iPhone version 11 or later: the impression is that of a large, super-organized service center that works outside the perimeter that Apple has mapped out for its service centers. And sometimes, precisely because nothing is thrown away, one also tries to go further.

A lidar and a camera sensor, as well as several SIM drawers

Microsoldering, a necessary evil for not having to throw away motherboards

The motherboard is certainly the most expensive component, and Swappie by choice cannot have access to the original components. Nobody, not even among suppliers, is able to procure a working motherboard, especially if it adopts several processors made specifically by Apple.

In the reconditioning center there are dozens of micro-welding stations capable of intervening on every aspect.

We have the drawings and technical diagrams”, One employee tells us, although we can’t know how they got them.

What is certain is that in front of our eyes it unsolves, using 360-degree air, a small memory immediately under an A12 SoC and moves it to another card from which that component had been removed.

A painstaking and incredibly clean job, with the space being carefully prepared and with the processor on which, through the masks, the tin is redistributed to prepare it for a new surface welding. They explain to us that they can reconstruct damaged tracks and that they can also move the entire SoC, and that if in the end it may seem very difficult in the end the intervention almost always succeeds and the card goes back to beating inside a new iPhone.

The masks to carry out the re-balling, or to deposit new tin on the surface welding microprocessors
The damaged part under the microscope

It is obviously not a simple process, because Apple’s policy where certain elements are associated via hardware to the Secure Enclave, just to avoid tampering, forces them to move entire processors to avoid a “rejection” by the new phone of the repaired motherboard.

It is also interesting to see how all the technicians have been internally trained: from 6 months for those who carry out easy jobs to two years for those who instead intervene with micro-welding operations. The economic question is fundamental: Swappie has already paid for the phones that he has withdrawn and cannot afford that the refurbishment process fails due to the poor preparation of the technicians or for a job done with little precision.

Grading, or how much it is right to sell a smartphone

The final stage is perhaps the most delicate: all phones that arrive are fully functional, either because they already were or because they have been repaired. It now remains to understand how much they can be sold according to their aesthetic condition: a careful analysis of surface scratches and imperfections allows a technician to establish the final price and to place the device on the site as salable.

The final grading phase, the product is polished and checked. The price is also decided
Electric toothbrush for surface polishing
Loudspeaker blower

The warehouse is unique, and phones destined for Italy depart from Helsinki via DHL. They are cleaned, polished, a film is applied if required and placed in the typical white box with cable and pin for the SIM. No charger, it’s on request only, and no type C cable, at least for now.

A process, what we have seen, fast and lean, which at the moment exclusively concerns iPhones but which, explains Emma Lehikoinen, COO of Swappie, could soon open up to other products.

Italy is a fundamental market for Swappie, the most important in terms of numbers and quantities: “What we try to do at Swappie is not to sell a used product, but to give the exact same experience of buying a new product and delivering home a product that is actually new. We believe that in Italy Swappie is so widespread precisely because there is obviously an economic convenience compared to buying in the store, and the process is also more ecologically sustainable.”Explains the manager.

The circular process, a used smartphone enters and a new smartphone comes out, also facilitates new business models, which go beyond what is the sale and then the one-off purchase. Swappie, like many other companies, is already testing the subscription as a pilot project, a small monthly fee to have a refurbished phone every year. Maybe not the latest model, but a phone that is still excellent thanks to Apple’s update policy: it is no coincidence that the iPhone 11 is by far the best-selling model in Italy, thanks to an excellent value for money.

The box with which the phone arrives home: all recycled paper

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About Alex Marcell

He likes dogs, pizza and popcorn. Already a fanboy of Nintendo and Sony, but today throws anything. He has collaborated on sites and magazines such as GameBlast, Nintendo World, Hero and Portal Pop, but today is dedicated exclusively to Spark Chronicles.

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